How rise in opioid deaths takes toll on funeral home operators
When Denise and Tim Eilrich's 21-year-old son died from an overdose of heroin laced with fentanyl, the days became a blur of shock and tragedy, a jarring introduction to the world of the opioid epidemic.
But through the haze, they took action.
On the day of Russell Eilrich's wake, his parents and the advocacy group Live4Lali hosted a training on how to use naloxone or Narcan to reverse an opioid overdose.
The session, held at Glueckert Funeral Home in Arlington Heights as mourners paid their respects, got owner John Glueckert Jr. thinking and taking action, too.
He now stocks two emergency kits of the overdose reversal drug inside his business and urges others in his industry to do the same.
During a year that the health department projects will result in 2,155 accidental overdose deaths across Illinois, the possibility of one occurring can't be ignored -- even at a funeral home.
"It's telling that now, next to our AED (automatic external defibrillator) or on top of our first aid kit, we have Narcan," Glueckert said. "It's just something that is now so prevalent."
When Russell Eilrich died on Jan. 10, 2016, suburban funeral directors already were noticing an increase in opioid overdose deaths.
At Glueckert, the uptick began after 2010, when the business performed just one opioid-related funeral. Since then, the number has grown to 10 in 2017 and six so far this year.
"One of the hardest things we do is look across our desk into the eyes of a grieving parent," Glueckert said. "Now we're doing it every month, and it does take kind of a toll."
Marya Gibbons, who owns Gibbons Funeral Home in Elmhurst with her husband, said she's learned to fear for her own children because of the tragedies that have befallen others. She remembers one grieving mother in particular.
"You sit down and you meet with these people and you're just kind of like, 'What happened? And what do I need to do to make sure this doesn't happen to me?'" Gibbons said. "It makes you feel very helpless in your own life."
"Normal" instances of people dying naturally at the end of a long life don't inspire such fearful personal reflections.
"It's got a different aftershock," Gibbons said.
Opioid-related deaths cause an unusual form of grief, so throughly mired with guilt, shame, confusion, regret, anger, envy, failure and uncertainty, that even those used to consoling families say they're sometimes at a loss.
"It's such a terrible juxtaposition of emotions," said Bob Van Staalduinen, who owns Knollcrest Funeral Home near Lombard.
The average age of the opioid victims Glueckert laid to rest last year was 38. It has been as low as 28 and as high as 40 within the past 10 years. The deaths of younger adults have broad implications.
In fact, the American life expectancy fell in 2016 for the second year in a row, and officials with the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said opioid overdoses were partially to blame. The average American now is expected to live 78.6 years -- down from 78.7 years in 2015 and 78.9 years in 2014.
"You watch parents grieving over the death of a child," Van Staalduinen said. "Particularly the young people is always so devastating."
Devastation understates the loss the Eilrichs felt when Russell was found dead in Beach Park.
Parents Denise and Tim never thought they'd enter the world of the opioid epidemic with any of their kids, a close unit of triplets.
Russell wasn't addicted, his parents say. He had been diagnosed at age 19 with celiac disease and about a month before his death with bipolar disorder triggered by alcohol. He had been taking medication for the disorder and seemed to be turning around, when his parents say they believe he used heroin for the first time and died.
"We were 100 percent blindsided," his mother said. "Completely raw."
The compounding emotions of total shock and all-encompassing sadness clouded the early days after Russell's death, as his extended family started a gofundme page to cover funeral costs and his parents began working with Glueckert to set up details.
Russell was a foodie and a great athlete, especially when it came to baseball, his parents say. He loved the outdoors, music and art, and was a laid-back kid but a good student. And then he was gone.
"It's just so over-the-top," his father said, "when it's that sudden and that tragic."
In the midst of the emotion, Denise said Glueckert and his staff emerged as "more than just a support to us as a family."
"When they saw what we were going through, you could sense their heartfelt response," Russell's father said. "You can see they're affected, too."
Many funeral home functions are the same for people felled by opioids as for those who died any other way.
Funeral directors help families coordinate services and burial arrangements, place obituaries, plan logistics of visitations and prepare bodies according to tradition. They're on call at all times and they always have plenty of tissues.
But after opioid deaths, they must coordinate receipt of the body from the coroner, along with a temporary death certificate that's issued while toxicology tests are pending. They must use caution when preparing the body of the deceased, in the event any drug residue remains. And they're called upon to help navigate emotions that can bring more than tears. "You're dealing with a section of bereaved people who are coming at this in a completely different way," Gibbons said.
There are families such as the woman Gibbons recalls who, through the foreshadowing of addiction, can somewhat see their child's death coming. Then there are families for whom a fatal overdose occurs without warning.
"That's one of the hardest things for parents to deal with -- how could I have noticed this? What could I have done?" Van Staalduinen said.
Funeral directors do listen as relatives process these thoughts -- worries about admitting a loved one's drug use, regrets about not seeing the signs, anger that the death wasn't prevented and heart-wrenching grief about the loss.
"You have to help the families work through some of that," Glueckert said. "You have to make sure you're allowing the family the best opportunity to memorialize their loved one and hopefully start them on a good grief journey."